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WE are a hydro-society where historically our livelihoods, settlements, wealth and culture were defined and inspired by water. Despite the importance of water for Pakistan, we have transformed from a water-abundant state to one of ‘perceived’ scarcity. According to a recent IMF report, “… despite an abundance of water a few decades ago, lagging policies have raised the prospect of water scarcity that could threaten all aspects of the economy”.

Pakistan’s water crisis is not one of absolute water scarcity but has over time been transformed into a ticking time bomb due to vested interests, power structures, political rivalries, ineffective governance and flawed policies.

In Pakistan, who controls water and who has access to it is at the heart of our water crises. Control and access are governance challenges; and the complexity is magnified when we speak about sharing water among communities, provinces, or countries. A large amount of available freshwater is transboundary and thus has to be shared. Increasing population numbers, competing uses and greater variability due to climate change are intensifying pressure on riparian actors (communities, provinces, states, countries) who share an already strained resource.

According to a recent independent report commissioned by members of the G7, the mounting pressures on available water for Pakistan could translate into political instability and security risk.

Transboundary water is no longer a purely management issue being juggled between competing economic and social demands; it is now a national asset which has to be negotiated diplomatically across international borders. With an increasingly international and interdependent disposition, water is featuring prominently in topics of foreign policy and diplomacy.

Historically, the transboundary water debate was played out as a zero-sum game. This is no longer tenable as demographic and economic drivers are straining an already limited resource. With this background, diplomacy in water is being considered an increasingly important avenue to improve water governance. Hydro-diplomacy is particularly relevant for Pakistan due to its unequal power structures in society and the politicised nature of water problems.

Most of Pakistan’s water challenges are viewed as technical. But technical solutions can only go so far in addressing water governance issues without a diplomatic approach to grievances, power balance and regional political contexts.

In Pakistan, a number of technical initiatives, such as new dams, hydropower projects and water-pricing proposals were eclipsed because stakeholders weren’t taken on board; power dynamics weren’t addressed; communication of information was insufficient and diplomatic options weren’t fully explored. Water issues then fell hostage to politics.

The Kishanganga case and Kalabagh dam are two examples of unsuccessful interstate and inter-provincial initiatives where a diplomatic approach would have led to a technical solution.

To use hydro-diplomacy as a tool we need strong institutions and political leadership as a prerequisite to be effective and reap results. According to a recent report by Climate Diplomacy titled The Rise of Hydro-Diplomacy — water conflict hotspots coincide with regions where resilient conflict resolution mechanisms and institutions are absent.

The Indus Waters Treaty is an interesting example of part-success, part-failure when it comes to regional cooperation between Pakis­tan and India on water. Despite three wars and a perpetually tense relationship between the two riparian countries, the treaty is still intact. However, having said this, the treaty is insufficient in the face of emerging challenges such as climate change, groundwater overdraft, etc.

For Pakistan, a key institutional arrangement is that of the Indus water commissioner. According to expert Shafqat Kakakhel, “The office of the Indus water commissioner hasn’t played an effective role.” There is need to strengthen the capacity of the commission, revise its mandate and model it on the lines of a foreign diplomatic institution.

The condition of our internal institutions managing transboundary waters is not very good either. Irsa internally manages the distribution of water among the provinces as per the 1991 Water Apportionment Accord. As the regulator, Irsa’s mandate is limited to water distribution among the provinces and hence does not include roles such as conflict resolution, negotiation or diplomacy.

The water debate in Pakistan should be steered from its focus on dams to where the stakes of various stakeholders can be resolved through a diplomatic process. Technical solutions like building infrastructure are necessary; however, without preconditions like strong institutions and an approach grounded in diplomacy we won’t be able to harness the cooperation and collaboration needed to benefit from our water resources.

The writer heads the water programme at LEAD, a not-for-profit organisation.

Published in Dawn, July 5th, 2015

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